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Now at a gym near you: high-tech testing

Once reserved for elite athletes, precision fitness analysis goes mainstream.

February 12, 2007|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Giusy Mele-Brown is no slouch when it comes to exercise -- she clocks in about two hours of workouts most days. But in the last six years she had seen her weight steadily climb. She eventually gained 25 pounds.

What got the 40-year-old Pasadena real estate agent back on track, she says, was a fitness test previously available only to elite and professional athletes: a noninvasive analysis that determines when she's in her aerobic, fat-burning heart rate zone and when she's in her anaerobic, carb-burning zone.

The result? Mele-Brown lost 22 pounds in two months, even as she kicked her workouts down several notches, doing cardio at about 140 beats a minute instead of her usual 180.

Increasingly, high-tech fitness tests are popping up at gyms. There's the test Mele-Brown took, which determined the heart rate at which she reached her anaerobic threshold, the point when the body stops using fat and oxygen for fuel and relies, instead, on carbohydrates. This helped her pinpoint her anaerobic zone, where the body produces lactic acid, breathing becomes difficult, the heart races and muscles quickly tire. Working out in this zone will improve the cardiovascular system but won't burn the body fat most people want to shed.

Another test now available determines resting metabolic rate -- how many calories are burned per day at rest -- so that people can accurately figure how many calories should be consumed and how many need to be burned.

Not long ago, these tests, which require sophisticated equipment costing thousands of dollars, were available only at human performance labs, elite sports-training facilities and some hospitals. Today, they're increasingly being offered at private training facilities, larger gym chains and even some corporate fitness facilities, the result of a demand from trainers plus savvy marketing by equipment manufacturers. The facilities generally offer the tests at a price tag that ranges from about $100 for the test alone to several hundred dollars for bells and whistles, such as individualized exercise prescriptions, with or without a trainer.

Health clubs tout the benefits of knowing these exact numbers. They say it's helpful for people struggling with losing weight or trying to improve their performance, whether on a treadmill or in a triathlon. But some exercise experts aren't sure that any of this is necessary. They point out that many other fitness tests that have been around for decades (such as using a numeric formula to estimate maximum heart rate) have served the workout population just fine, even if they're less precise.

"You don't need an anaerobic threshold test in order to exercise safely and effectively, regardless of what your goals are, says Mitchell Whaley, a professor of exercise science who also works with the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University in Indiana. The old, low-tech methods are close enough, he says. If someone wasn't working out in their optimal fat-burning zone, for instance, exercising for just a few more minutes would make up any deficit.

Those who offer the tests claim a host of benefits.

Matt Berenc, fitness manager of Equinox in Century City, says the tests can mean the difference between great results and good results. (The upscale chain offers testing at the Santa Monica and Westwood gyms, and plans to do so at its recently opened Century City location.) With testing, he says, people can avoid exercise plateaus by always knowing when they're in a fat-burning zone.

In the case of Spinning enthusiasts, he adds, the problem may be overexertion. Yes, people are getting in shape, but classes are usually ramped up to a very high intensity, putting many participants in the less ideal anaerobic zone for much of the time.

Such tests might prevent beginner's burnout or injuries from overexertion, says Robert Forster, founder of Phase IV Scientific Health and Performance Center in Santa Monica, a sports training facility that offers testing not only to the athletes it serves but also, now, to other health-minded folks. And accurately figuring one's resting metabolic rate helps people know how many calories they're burning at rest as opposed to how many they think they are, says Todd Durkin, trainer and owner of Fitness Quest 10, a personal training and workout facility in San Diego. "One thing I think we trainers don't do enough of is objective testing to give feedback to clients," he says.

Of course, good trainers have been refining and tweaking their clients' programs for years, sans expensive testing. But while many trainers excel at guiding their clients through weight training, cardio often gets short shrift, says Kymberli Allen, a master trainer with Sports Club/LA's Target Zone program. "Trainers will focus on muscles, then tell their client to get on the bike for 20 minutes and not give details to them," she says.

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